South Africa’s “nearly-man” sets up Zuma confrontation with ANC leadership win

Victory for Cyril Ramaphosa, Mandela's preferred successor, is just start of battle with country's President.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Wiping tears from his eyes, Cyril Ramaphosa finally achieved the goal he had been aspiring to for much of his adult life: he was elected president of the African National Congress. As his biographer commented: “South Africa’s ‘nearly-man’ has finally made it to the top.” For Ramaphosa had been here once before. He was Nelson Mandela’s preferred candidate to succeed him, only to be thrust aside by Thabo Mbeki.

Yet even yesterday’s triumph must have been a bitter-sweet moment. Ramaphosa won by a tiny margin: just 179 votes. A fiercely fought contest saw him narrowly beating his rival, Dr Dlamini-Zuma by 2,440 votes to 2,261. Uniting the party will be need to be his first priority.

Implementing the policies he stood on was always going to be difficult. Ramaphosa promised to do all he can to tackle corruption. “Those who have broken the law should be criminally charged and be made to account‚” he promised.

This will inevitably pit him against Jacob Zuma, who has over 700 allegations of corruption hanging over him. Yet Zuma is due to remain president of the country until the next general election in 2019.

If Ramaphosa takes on Zuma it will mean the President of the ANC locked in struggle with the President of the country. In the ensuing struggle, who will emerge supreme?

To make matters worse, the ANC elected three Zuma supporters to the six most senior leadership positions in the party. Some have suggested that the divisions within the leadership will be a ‘disaster’ for the party. “The party still lies within the hands of very questionable people‚” declared political analyst, Ralph Mathekga. Ramaphosa will only have limited support from his senior officials if he attempts to confront Zuma.  

But Ramaphosa is no ordinary ANC leader. Initially a member of the black consciousness movement, he spent months in jail in solitary confinement under the apartheid system’s notorious Terrorism Act.  Unlike others, who went abroad to join the resistance, Ramaphosa remained to fight at home.

A qualified lawyer, he participated in the trade union movement, founding the giant Mineworkers Union. It was an extraordinary achievement. Unionising the mines had been attempted unsuccessfully by others, since South African mines were closed compounds, making miners almost impossible to contact. Ramaphosa shrewdly began by organising the clerical staff and only then went on to organise those at the rock-face.

Ramaphosa backed the United Democratic Front, the ANC’s surrogate inside the country, until the party was unbanned in 1991. He then joined the ANC negotiating team and is credited with playing a critical role in shaping the country’s much admired constitution. In so doing, he won grudging recognition from the then president, F. W. de Klerk: “[Ramaphosa’s] relaxed manner and convivial expression were contradicted by coldly calculating eyes, which seemed to be searching continuously for the softest spot in the defences of his opponents. His silver tongue and honeyed phrases lulled potential victims while his arguments relentlessly tightened around them.”

In 1991 he was elected Secretary-General of the ANC and seemed destined for the top, until he was outflanked by Mbeki. In 1997 Ramaphosa left parliament and went into the private sector, becoming one of the richest black South Africans. He now carries the hope of investors and the business community that he can reverse the decay left by nine years of Zuma’s misrule.

While Ramaphosa won – and continues to win – golden opinions from business, there are others who see these links as his Achilles heel. Ramphosa’s name will forever be linked with the Markana massacre of 2012, when the police opened fire on striking miners. 44 people were killed, 34 of them gunned down by police. Ramaphosa, as a director of the mine-owners, Lonmin, had rung the police calling for reinforcements. Although he subsequently apologised for his actions, they sullied his reputation.

In many ways Ramaphosa’s election marks a decisive break with the past. He is the first leader in the modern era not to have shared the ANC’s bitter experience of life in exile in Zambia, Tanzania, Angola and beyond. He is a Venda – not from one of South Africa’s two major ethic groups – the Xhosa (like Nelson Mandela or Thabo Mbeki) or the Zulu (like Zuma). Ramaphosa is not beholden to the notorious Gupta family, who – backed by the British Public Relations firm – Bell Pottinger – did so much to sour public life by stirring up racial strife.

The real question remains: can South Africa be turned around if Zuma and Ramaphosa continue to confront one another? Can there really be two centres of power? It should be recalled that the country had a brief taste of this once before. In December 2007 Zuma ousted Mbeki as president of the ANC, even though Mbeki remained president of the country. By September the following year Mbeki had been dismissed – or ‘recalled’ in ANC parlance.

Will this fate now befall Zuma? No-one can be sure. But dealing with Zuma is clearly the major hurdle confronting Ramaphosa as he attempts to rebuild his party and his country.

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. His most recent book is a biography of Robert Mugabe with Sue Onslow.